12 August 2011

Viewing Staffordshire’s Anglo-Saxon Hoard in Lichfield Cathedral

A selection of finds from the hoard unearthed near Lichfield and now on display in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield this week and was in Lichfield Cathedral last night for a guided tour of the exhibition, “the Staffordshire Hoard on Tour,” which is on show in the Chapter House

This exhibition, which has come to Lichfield from Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, is a unique opportunity to see the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. But we also had an opportunity to learn about in the context of the arrival of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and about Lichfield’s patron, Saint Chad.

Canon Pete Wilcox, Canon-Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral, who led Evening Prayer in the Cathedral earlier in the day, has said: “We’re delighted to be working alongside our colleagues at Birmingham and Stoke to help bring the temporary touring exhibition to life. In Lichfield, visitors will get the chance to learn more about the links between the hoard and the cathedral's existing priceless treasures, including the Saint Chad Gospels and the Lichfield Angel.”

I was fortunate to get to see this exhibition last night – it emerged a few days ago that all the tickets to see the Staffordshire Hoard at Lichfield Cathedral were snapped up four days before the exhibition opened on Saturday 30 July.

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of gold from the period ever found in England, and this harvest of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver is so beautiful that it even brought tears to the eyes of at least one expert. None of the experts who examined the hoard has seen anything like it before. All have been impressed not just by the quantity, but by the dazzling quality of the pieces, which has left them groping for superlatives.

The finds in the exhibition

The hoard was unearthed in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, two years ago on 5 July 2009. It is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found, and it eclipses, at least in quantity, the hoard found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in 1939.

This is a find without precedent and experts would regard any one item a spectacular discovery. But there are more than 3,000 items, nearly all of them martial in character. They have been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries, placing their origin at the height of the Kingdom of Mercia. The hoard includes spectacular gem-studded pieces decorated with tiny interlaced beasts, which were originally the ornamentation for Anglo-Saxon swords of princely quality, 84 pommel caps, 71 hilt collars, weapons and helmet decorations, coins and Christian crosses, adding up to 5 kg of gold and 2.5 kg of silver.

Dr Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, says the quantity of gold is extremely impressive and that, “more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good.”

But he points out that the make-up of the hoard is unbalanced. “There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. These are the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon era. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial – war gear, especially sword fittings.”

The hoard includes:

Weaponry: The contents include many finely worked silver and gold sword decorations removed from weaponry, including 66 gold sword hilt collars and many gold hilt plates, some with inlays of cloisonn̩ garnet in zoomorphic designs. The 86 sword pommels found amount to the largest ever discovery of pommels in a single context, with many different types Рsome previously unknown Рsupporting the idea that the pommels were made over a wide range of time.

Crosses: The only items in the hoard that are obviously not martial are two, or possibly three, crosses that are among the 40 or selected items in the exhibition. Some of the crosses were folded up casually, the largest is missing some decorative settings, but otherwise remains intact, and it may have been an altar or processional cross. Yet the cross was folded, either prior to burial “to make it fit into a small space,” or as a sign that the burial deposit was made by pagans. On the other hand, Christians at the time were capable of despoiling each other’s shrines.

This gold strip is one of the most intriguing items in the hoard

Gold strip: One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition is a small strip of gold, folded in half and inscribed on both sides with an Old Testament quotation from Moses in occasionally misspelled Latin and capital letters: Surge Dne disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua (Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua).

This translates: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee” (Numbers 10: 35); or “Rise up O Lord; may your enemies be scattered and those who hate you be driven from your face” (Numbers 10: 35, NRSV).

Pommel caps: Dr Kevin Leahy also points to the significance that the find includes dozens of pommel caps – decorative attachments to sword handles – and that Beowulf contains a reference to warriors stripping the pommels from their enemies’ swords.

Significance of find

The hoard has been described by Dr Leslie Webster, formerly of the Department of Prehistory at the British Museum, as “absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.” She says: “This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.”

The first pieces of gold were found on 5 July 2009 in a field on a farm in Hammerwich, near Lichfield, by Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detector who lives alone in a council flat on disability benefit. Never before had he found anything more valuable than a nice rare piece of Roman horse harness.

He was exploring an area of farmland using a metal detector and working with the permission of the landowner, Fred Johnson, when he uncovered what is now known as the Staffordshire Hoard. The field is now under grass, but that year it had been ploughed deeper than usual by Fred Johnson, and experts believe this brought the pieces closer to the surface.

Over the next five days, Terry Herbert recovered enough gold objects from the plough soil to fill 244 bags. At this point, he contacted Duncan Slarke, the Finds Liaison Officer for the Staffordshire and West Midlands Portable Antiquities Scheme. Fred Johnson gave permission for an excavation to search for the rest of the hoard.

Putting the finds on exhibit

The exhibition continues at Lichfield Cathedral until Sunday 21 August and moves to Tamworth Castle on 27 August

The hoard, now valued at over £3 million, has been bought by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent.

The first exhibition in Birmingham, from 24 September to 13 October 2009, attracted 40,000 visitors, with queues several hours long. Part of the hoard then went on display at the British Museum from 3 November 2009 to 17 April 2010, and a further selection of 80 items went on display at the Potteries Museum, including a gold horse’s head that has not been exhibited previously. Key items and numerous smaller pieces were then taken to the British Museum, where cataloguing began, along with some initial cleaning and conservation work.

The current exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral includes two extra, exclusive items: the Lichfield Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, with an extra-interactive exhibition in the cathedral of replica helmets, swords and other items, children’s activities and DVDs.

The exhibition opened in the Chapter House on Saturday 30 July and continues until Sunday 21 August, with free timed entry tickets and exclusive paid tours. There were two tours last night, limited to 30 pre-booked people on each occasion. All donations are going towards conserving, researching and displaying the hoard in the future as part of the emerging Mercian trail.

The tour has already visited the Shire Hall in Stafford (2 July to 24 July) and continues at Tamworth Castle from 27 August to 18 September, before going on to Washington DC in October. After the exhibitions in Lichfield, Tamworth and Washington, the hoard goes on permanent display in Birmingham and in Stoke-on-Trent.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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